Position-by-Position: Bench Trial
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Years from now, when we look back on the Cavaliers 2016-17 roster, the amount of big-name frontline players that came through the revolving doors over the course of an uneven campaign might be surprising.
Before the start of last season, it seemed like veterans Mike Dunleavy (the 3rd overall pick of the 2002 Draft) and Chris Andersen (who still holds the record for field goal percentage in a single Playoff run) would be key rotation guys.
In terms of Tristan Thompson’s backup plan, after Andersen suffered a season-ending knee injury, the Cavaliers turned to former top overall pick, Andrew Bogut, whose career in Cleveland ended after less than a minute of action. Less than two weeks later, they signed Larry Sanders – who’d been out of the game for a couple years – to a free agent deal. That experiment lasted less than one month.
Eventually, the Cavs would sign Edy Tavares, the G League’s 2016-17 Defensive Player of the Year, on the final day of the regular season and throughout the Playoffs. Tavares remains on the roster heading into Training Camp – set to tip off later this month.
With injuries piling up along the frontline midway through the previous campaign, the Cavs also signed Derrick Williams – the former No. 2 overall pick in 2011 – to a deal for the remainder of the season. Williams acquitted himself very well in his short stint with the Wine & Gold, notching double-figures in five of his first eight games with Cleveland and providing a solid spark off the bench in Tyronn Lue’s time of need.
This year, the Wine & Gold head into the season with a much deeper roster of reserves – from rock-solid veterans like Kyle Korver, Jae Crowder, Derrick Rose, Channing Frye, Jeff Green and Jose Calderon to youngsters like Kay Felder, Cedi Osman, John Holland and Ante Zizic looking to make their mark.
As we continue to gear up for a rapidly-approaching Training Camp, here’s a breakdown of this year’s group of Cavalier reserves …
Along with the Cavs new threads, fans will also have to get used to some new faces coming off Cleveland’s bench this season.
With the recent offseason still in its quiet, early days, the Cavaliers made a pair of under-the-radar acquisitions – bringing in veterans Jose Calderon and Jeff Green. They weren’t the sexiest free agent signings of the summer, but they did bolster Cleveland’s bench in a pair of areas in desperate need of improvement.
Through the first few months of last season, the Wine & Gold struggled to find Kyrie Irving’s backup – going with a point-guard-by-committee scenario that saw Iman Shumpert, Jordan McRae, Kay Felder and DeAndre Liggins rehearsing for the role. With Calderon, they get a steady veteran presence, a pure point with Playoff experience who rarely turns the ball over.
Green, a 10-year vet who’s played in 38 postseason contests himself, is a rock-solid backup to both LeBron James and Jae Crowder. The Maryland native, who spent all of last season with Orlando, is a career 43 percent shooter from the floor, a solid rebounder (4.7 rpg) and decent assist man (1.7 apg).
Calderon – who Koby Altman said, at last week’s presser, has been in the gym every day since being signed – will begin the year as Derrick Rose’s backup while Isaiah Thomas continues to rehab from a hip injury.
After battling the injury bug for years following his MVP season in 2012, Rose is coming off a solid campaign, averaging 18.0 points in 64 starts for a bad Knicks team. It’ll be good for Rose to start the season running Cleveland’s first unit, making for a more seamless transition when he’s mixed and matched in different lineups when Isaiah Thomas returns.
Aside from the seasoned veterans, the Cavaliers did bring in a couple younger players to strengthen the end of their bench.
Cedi Osman, the 31st pick of the 2015 Draft, who the Cavs acquired from Minnesota will finally make his NBA debut this fall. Last season, the 22-year-old swingman played in 35 games with Anadolu Efes in the Turkish Basketball League – averaging 13.2 points on .496 shooting, to go with 4.1 rebounds and 1.5 steals per.
Late last week, the Cavaliers also inked forward John Holland to a two-way contract. Holland, who appeared in the Playoffs with Boston in 2016, nearly made Cleveland’s roster after being invited to Camp last September. The 6-5, 205-pounder – who was named last year’s G League Impact Player of the Year – averaged 22.9 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.5 steals in a league-high 38.9 minutes per game.
It’ll be an interesting task for Tyronn Lue and his staff to meld some of the Cavs new moving parts in with a rotation that’s tasted great success over the past three years.
In two of Cleveland’s previous three postseason runs, they’ve run into – and through – the Boston Celtics, winning eight of nine Playoffs meetings combined. But it hasn’t been as easy as the final mark would indicate, and one of the major points of resistance has been Jae Crowder.
At last week’s presser, after deftly dodging a question about the incident with J.R. Smith in the 2016 First Round matchup – (he told reporters off-mic later that day that he and J.R. are completely cool) – Crowder explained why he was a fan favorite in Boston, and why that’ll continue in Cleveland.
”It’s not about social media or anything like that connecting with (fans), it’s all about showing what you bring to the team and showing how much you respect the game of basketball,” said Crowder. “And that’s how you win over fans – giving it your all, playing the right way and competing at a high level.”
Crowder notched double-figures in four of the five games against Cleveland in last season's Eastern Conference Finals, finishing with 21 points in Game 1 and doubling-up with 14 points and 11 boards in Game 3.
The 6-6, 235-pounder from Marquette is coming off his best season as a pro – averaging 13.9 points on a career-best 46 percent shooting in 72 starts last year with Boston. He’ll serve as both a solid backup to LeBron and could flourish alongside him as well. The rugged sixth-year forward will also bring some much-needed toughness.
Other than scouting reports, YouTube highlights and the fact that basketball people smarter than us saw fit to draft him with the 23rd overall pick one year ago, not too much is known about Ante Zizic.
But recent history bodes well for him – as he hopes to join a list of versatile, skilled big men who’s emerged from the Adriatic League over the last few years – including Denver’s Nikola Jokic, Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic as well as former T-Wolves center and “Superman II” nemesis, Nikola Pekovic. Dario Saric, who finished second in Rookie of the Year voting this past season, also emerged from the Adriatic League.
The kid who’s already being called “Big Z” – a nickname hallowed in the halls of CCC – doesn’t turn 21 until January and might spend this season doing his most significant development on the practice floor. (Practice time with an uber-successful group of veterans that includes the game’s greatest player should not be underestimated.)
The final major piece of the Boston deal – the extremely valuable unprotected first rounder from Brooklyn – gives Cleveland a major chip that it didn’t have heading into the summer. And whether the Cavaliers brass decides to keep or deal the pick, odds are he won’t wind up in an offseason article about Second Teamers.
The Cavaliers returning reserves are a mix of wide-eyed youth and grizzled veteran experience. (Can we call Channing Frye “grizzled”?)
Cleveland went through some big veteran names to fill in the blanks late last season, but in the end, it was still their group of incumbents – including Kyle Korver, acquired in early January – who came through in the postseason.
Richard Jefferson has been a solid, dependable backup for the past two seasons – contributing to the cause without posting huge numbers. Last year, he was Cleveland’s second option at small forward all season. But this summer, that spot has gotten much more crowded – with the likes of Jae Crowder, Jeff Green and even John Holland pushing the 37-year-old.
For the second straight season, Channing Frye had a solid year and Playoff run only to find himself stuck to Tyronn Lue’s bench in the Finals matchup against Golden State.
Frye served as Tristan Thompson’s backup for most of the season and was very good when pressed into the starting lineup – averaging 11.4 points in 15 starts, netting double-figures in 11 of those contests. His .541 three-point shooting percentage is tops in Cavaliers Playoff history, but the 13-year veteran saw a grand total of 11 minutes of floor time in the 2017 Finals.
All Kyle Korver did last season was lead the NBA – for the fourth time in his 14-year NBA career – in three-point shooting percentage, going .451 from long-range with Atlanta and Cleveland. It was also the third time in the past four years that Korver has been the Association’s top marksman.
Korver got red-hot during a road trip not long after being traded to Cleveland and personally tortured the Indiana Pacers all season long, but he’d probably like to have his 2017 postseason run to do over – shooting 39 percent from long-range in the Playoffs, notching double-figures on just three occasions.
Still, Korver – who the Cavaliers inked immediately this offseason – is an invaluable piece in a drive-and-kick system that produced the Eastern Conference’s top three-point shooting squad.
Rookie Kay Felder had an up-and-down first season in Cleveland – bouncing back and forth between the Cavaliers and Charge. He had some big nights in Canton and a couple flashes with the Wine & Gold, but Felder finds himself in a crowded point guard group heading into Camp this fall.
Edy Tavares, the G League’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, didn’t see many minutes with Cleveland after being signed on the final day of the regular season. But he made those minutes on the final day of the regular season count: swatting six shots in the finale against Toronto – most since Zydrunas Ilguaskas in 2007 and one shy of tying Larry Nance for the most (7) in a single half in team history.
Like Felder, Tavares will face even more competition when Training Camp tips off in under two weeks.